The rotation in Erie will return just one pitcher from last season, that being right-hander Luis Marte. After battling some elbow issues last summer and a stiff shoulder during the Arizona Fall League, Marte is throwing free and throwing well this spring, and he could get back on his breakout track from early last year in Lakeland. Armed with a power arsenal and a desire to have the ball in his hands, its possible Marte could emerge as the staff ace despite his relative youth.
Jon Kibler is coming off a season in which he earned Detroit's Minor League Pitcher of the Year award, and TigsTown's West Michigan Pitcher of the Year, and he skips a level to make his Double-A debut. On the heels of his banner season with the Whitecaps, Kibler spent time in big league spring training, and Pitching Coach Ray Burris thinks he could be a key player for his staff this season, "He's going to compete. He's a big, strong left-hander, and he's going to do well for us."
Jonah Nickerson gets the ball Opening Night, and Burris knows what he's getting with the bulldog righty. With a solid-average arsenal across the board and an unwillingness to back down, Nickerson should be a durable starter that competes with the best of them in 2009.
Rounding out the rotation are right-handers Alfredo Figaro and Brooks Brown. Brown was recently acquired in exchange for the full rights to catcher James Skelton, and he will take his second try at the Double-A level this season.
Figaro is another pitcher who spent time in big league camp after a strong season that earned him a spot on the Tigers 40-man roster. Though he may profile better in the bullpen at the big league level, Burris thinks he has the stuff to be a very nice starter at the Double-A level; "The growth he has shown me from '06 to '09 has been tremendous. He had a nice season in West Michigan last year and has earned the right to be one of our Double-A starters."
Catching the five starters night in and night out will be minor league veteran Max St. Pierre and a player entering his first full season of pro ball, Alex Avila. Max brings a knowledge of the Eastern League and some knowledge of opposing pitchers which will give his starters an upper hand throughout the season, and his bat came alive last season and could contribute to an already potent Erie lineup. Avila has impressed early with his bat, but as with St. Pierre, Burris notes that another trait may be what makes the biggest impact on the pitching staff, "They both bring a level of leadership that every team needs. They both know their pitching staff, and they need to help them be successful."
Around the outfield in Erie will be several recognizable names; including Jeff Frazier, Casper Wells, and Deik Scram. All three outfielders spent extensive time in Erie last season and they will be looked upon to build on their 2008 success this year. Frazier has quickly become a minor league veteran capable of hitting enough to be dangerous, and with enough versatility to handle both outfield corners and even first base in a pinch.
Scram was solid but unspectacular last season for Brookens and his ‘Wolves squad, and he returns this season looking better than ever. Always known as a speedy outfielder with the ability to find the gaps a bit, Scram added some bulk in the offseason and appeared to be driving the ball with more authority this spring. Watch out as Scram could become one of the leagues better top of the order hitters.
After an explosive display that extended through the Eastern League season and into the Arizona Fall League, Casper Wells is back for another turn with the ‘Wolves. Though he appeared slated for Toledo early in camp, a roster crunch among outfielders pushed him back to Erie, and that may be a great thing for Seawolves fans. Casper is capable of going on a tear and carrying the offense for weeks at a time, but he may not have to do that this year, with a strong offensive club around him.
The final outfielder working in Erie this summer will be Brennan Boesch. Despite less than inspiring numbers with Lakeland last season, Boesch has the talent to be an elite prospect both offensively and defensively. If the flashes he showed in 2008 and the stuff he showed in spring training come through in 2009, he could be in for a huge season.
Taking a break from the position players to look at the relievers on the roster, there are some interesting names and plenty of power arms available for Burris and Brookens to send to the mound. Brett Jensen, Josh Rainwater, and Brendan Wise all return as right-handers to the Erie bullpen, and both Rainwater and Wise will be key guys capable of going multiple innings or coming in late in the game to get that key out to thwart an opposing rally.
Jensen returns to the Seawolves after missing nearly all of last season due to Tommy John surgery on his right arm. Jensen was throwing without restriction this spring and Burris says the keys for Jensen will be "making sure his delivery is sound, and making sure he is releasing the ball with freedom in his delivery."
Two new right-handers on the roster will be Zach Simons and 2008 second round pick Cody Satterwhite, and both can bring fastballs in the mid-90s. Simons earned a place on the 40-man roster last season with a strong showing that really helped carry a Lakeland bullpen that was constantly in flux. Satterwhite has unlimited potential and he could easily step into a dominating role at the back end of games. With Ryan Perry already in Detroit, Satterwhite may be the next from the 2008 draft class to make the leap to the big leagues.
Slinging from the left side of the rubber, Ramon Garcia and Josh Kite both have lethal potential. Garcia is a known commodity that Burris referred to as a ‘strike thrower' who attacks hitters and gives you his best every time on the mound. Kite may be a relative unknown to many prospect followers, but he received high praise from Burris. "He's got one of the best sliders I've seen in a long time. You can compare his slider to that of Sparky Lyle, Ron Guidry, and even a Steve Carlton. That's the type of pitch this man has."
Moving back to the position players, the infield returns three players from past Erie rosters. Max Leon and Santo De Leon both return from the 2008 team, and both have the ability to play multiple positions on the infield. Leon could see time at second, short, or third base, and De Leon could work between first and third. Max saw some time in Toledo last year, but strides are needed in his offensive game for him to take the next step as a serious prospect. De Leon flashes big time potential on occasion, but has yet to put it all together for a full season.
The third returning player is a bit of a blast from the past, with Michael Hollimon returning after a year away playing at Triple-A and the Major Leagues. Hollimon was squeezed out of a return trip to Toledo, and he could be the squads most versatile player, with his ability to play the entire left side of the infield, along with second base and the outfield. Hollimon has turned in big seasons in the Eastern League in the past, and it isn't unreasonable to expect another from such an advanced player.
The final three players on the roster are quite possibly the three most exciting. First baseman Ryan Strieby, shortstop Cale Iorg, and second baseman Scott Sizemore are three of the organizations top prospects and all three will be looking to make huge impressions in 2009. Strieby is coming off of a season in which he set a new Lakeland record for home runs, but also a season in which he missed time with a wrist injury that was still lingering into the spring.
Sizemore is another player that missed time with a wrist injury in 2008, and after making his comeback last fall, he is primed and ready to make a splash this season. Sizemore looked poised and polished this spring and was working well with double-play partner Cale Iorg, up the middle. If he can get back to his 2007 form where he was swinging a potent stick from the keystone, Sizemore could re-establish himself as the heir apparent to Placido Polanco.
TigsTown's #3 prospect, Cale Iorg has as much talent as anyone in the system, and it is only a matter of time before it begins to show through. He is fluid and confident in every action on the field and his defense at shortstop should draw the utmost in confidence from the Erie pitchers. Iorg is still shaking off some rust and developing as a hitter, but he has explosive talent and we could see the start of a superstar in the making in Erie this summer.
There is a nice balance of start offensive talent and star pitching talent on this roster, and they could be a contender for the Eastern League Crown. If the pitching continues to develop and keeps the team in games, the offense will be tough to keep down, and there should be plenty of wins in the future.